Sewing for a Changing Body: Post-Mastectomy and Reconstruction

I have always been at the top end of ready-to-wear sizes in shops, and that was one of the reasons I started sewing almost a decade ago. Sewing helped me feel more confident with my body once I learned how to do a full bust adjustment to make patterns work for me.

Nearly 3 years ago I got diagnosed with breast cancer and had to come to terms with a lot of physical changes: my weight fluctuated during chemotherapy, and then I had surgeries to prepare for.

I had a double mastectomy with DIEP reconstruction (where the breasts are created using fat and tissue from the stomach), so I woke after surgery with a swollen chest and torso and a painfully tight and flat stomach. Approximately 1kg of tissue was removed from each breast (including up to the underarm), so I’m assuming a similar amount of my stomach was taken to replace it.

Side by side photos of Alison pre- and post-surgery. She is wearing a polka dot wrap dress and is smiling in both photos. The photos are selfies taken with her smartphone.

It was quite strange knowing my body would be about to change and planning a wardrobe for post-surgery, and here are some things I learned:

  • Knits are your friend. Comfy secret pyjamas are forgiving and comfy to wear. 
  • Wraps and ties will let you adjust the fit day by day. I lived in wrap dresses for a month after my big op with a vest top underneath. You might also want to tie things higher or lower to avoid scars or dressings.
  • Simple styles are best for adjusting later on. I’ve been able to refit simple skirts easily, but slanted pockets and panels with topstitching are much more effort. I had a pair of trousers and took in the side and centre back seams as much as I could; however, the proper fly front with top stitching couldn’t be unpicked easily — if they had a side zipper I probably could have saved them.
  • Adjustments aren’t just about the circumference measurement. Things like bust apexes can change, and even if the measurement is correct, where the darts point can make the fit totally different. Princess seams with generous seam allowances might give you more ways to adjust things in the future.
  • Posture changes the way a garment looks. I couldn’t stand straight for weeks so was walking hunched forward, which caused lots of strange hems.

There were some garments I had to admit I couldn’t save, and it was time to give them a new home. I kept a couple of my favourite pieces I couldn’t bear to part with, planning to review them in a year or two.

Alison is a British sewist and elementary teacher. You can find her on Instagram @alibobs_sews.